NBA Draft prospects often are grouped into two categories: safe and upside. This is haphazard and reductive, but also how people attempt to sort mature players who seem "ready to contribute"—something that's tough to say about anyone making the jump to the best basketball league in the world—from those who are seen as riskier, less-developed projects.
Florida State big man Jonathan Isaac looks like a typical upside player: "Boom or bust" is how one NBA executive described him to me. Standing 6-foot-10 but weighing just 210 pounds, the rail-thin 19-year-old is all gangly athleticism. He has enticing perimeter skills—a fluid jump shot and the ability to drive to the rim—yet struggles with both confidence and consistency, and hasn't shown much in terms of creating offense for himself.
If all of his pieces come together, Isaac could become an All-Star; if they don't, he could end up as a below-average offensive player. At this point in time, it's almost impossible to predict which way he'll go. However, there's another aspect of Isaac's game that doesn't take much projecting, and—at least in my mind—makes him less of a traditional project than a player with a safe and identifiable NBA role.
Specifically, Isaac is already a very strong defender, and in ways that are increasingly valuable. With continued physical growth and improvement, he could become so much more.
No draftee is bust-proof. But Isaac's particular defensive abilities should translate to the league at a high level. Today's NBA is dominated by quick guards and offenses built around high ball screens, which means defenses are looking for long, mobile bigs who can protect the rim without being liabilities in space.
Consider Milwaukee. The Bucks are able to deploy Giannis Antetokounmpo—and all of his his ridiculously fluid athletic ability and outrageous 7-foot-4 wingspan—at power forward. Next to him is 7-foot rookie center Thon Maker. Physically speaking, the Greek Freak is one of a kind. But Maker long, athletic, and agile as well, so much so that he has been able to make a NBA impact far earlier than many expected, even though he's the first high school player to jump directly to the league since the One-And-Done era began.
Together, the duo is able to keep opponents out of the paint. And when you do that, you have a very good chance of making opposing offenses inefficient. In five playoff games against Toronto—which finished sixth in the NBA in offensive efficiency this season—the Bucks have a defensive rating of 100.1, the second-best mark in the postseason.
NBA talent evaluators have a tough time scouting and projecting just how well big man prospects can defend in space. Due in part to the college game's shorter three-point line and the schemes campus coaches tend to use, most college bigs aren't consistently put on islands against quick guards. Isaac is an exception. Florida State state coach Leonard Hamilton used a switch-heavy defensive scheme that was similar to what many league teams run, and in many ways, Isaac's mobility and instincts were the reason the Seminoles could do so.
In all of college basketball last season, I'm not sure there was a defender who saw such a wide variety of matchups. Against Miami, Isaac often checked uber-athletic guard Bruce Brown or long, 3-and-D wing Davon Reed; against Duke, he went against fellow NBA Draft Lottery prospect and gifted shot creator Jayson Tatum; against Notre Dame, he faced off with physical, undersized center Bonzie Colson.
Isaac took all of those players out of their comfort zones. The key was his footwork. On the ball, Isaac is capable of sliding with guards in isolation toward the basket, either cutting off penetration, forcing a pass, or contesting a shot. After contesting, he's terrific at sealing off his man and grabbing rebounds himself, as illustrated by his 25 percent defensive rebounding rate. In pick-and-roll coverage, Isaac uses his quickness to show on guards in order to cut cut them off before recovering onto rollers. He occasionally gets caught on screens, but most of the time he fights his way over them.
Isaac's length also comes in handy on help defense away from the basket, where he has shown the ability to dig on ball-handlers and show a double, then get back to his man to contest. He has disruptive hands and good hand-eye coordination, which helps him force turnovers. He's quick enough to strip ball-handlers in isolation, and can get get into passing lanes to create transition opportunities—in fact, he was the tallest freshman in the country to post a steal rate of at least 2.4 percent. Roaming defenders have extreme value in today's NBA, and Isaac fits the bill.
Of course, playing mobile defensive bigs isn't nearly as effective if they can't provide some rim protection, too. Isaac excels ther: his 6.2 block rate finished in the top 100 of all qualified college basketball players, and he showed well on lane-to-lane weak side rotation as a help defender. He'll need to put on much more upper body strength to be an effective primary rim protector at the NBA level, but his timing already is impeccable, and whoever taught him about defensive verticality did a good job.
Statistically, Isaac was a difference-maker at Florida State, and the company he kept bodes well for his future. He was one of only five high major defenders since 2009-10 to post a 25 percent defensive rebounding rate, six percent block rate, and 2.4 percent steal rate. The other four? Anthony Davis, who has twice made the NBA's All-Defensive team; Andre Roberson, who is likely to make the same squad this season; Dewayne Dedmon, who saw San Antonio's defensive rating drop from 102.7 to 97.5 when he was on the floor; and Aaric Murray, who as a college player was dismissed from two schools in a three-year period and never saw his professional career get off the ground for reasons outside of basketball.
On offense, Isaac is a question mark. He averaged 12 points per game while shooting over 50 percent from the field and 35 percent from beyond the arc. He's good at cutting off the ball, and creates looks for himself with offensive rebounds. On the other hand, his shot release needs work, he struggles to finish through contact, and he oscillates between dominant spurts of play and long stretches where he's essentially invisible on the floor. Florida State didn't ask him to make advanced passing reads as ball-handler or offensive creator, and among elite freshmen draft prospect wings over the last four years, he has taken a uniquely low percentage of possessions in what I call "creation situations"—pick-and-roll, post-up, and isolations.
It's easy to see Isaac as a prospect with a quite a bit of upside. But it's also easy, I think, to view him as a safe pick, a potential high-level role player who works hard on defense, provides off-ball value on offense, and allows his team to better run a switch-everything defensive scheme. Even if his offense never gels, he's exactly the sort of player who is worth a mid-lottery pick. Indeed, Isaac shows the limitations of placing prospects in the safe and upside buckets. He has a foot in both, and as such, should be one of the most intriguing players in the 2017 draft.
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